Monday, October 22, 2012

Rain Gear for Running

OK, I know many of you live where the weather has already gotten cold and wet. Where I live (and run and coach), however, it was over 80° for two of our workouts last week! Today is a different story - the first rain of our rainy season is here, and it is likely to rain for at least part of our workout today and maybe even tomorrow. So here is a recap of appropriate clothing for running in the rain.

After the Run
That's right. What you have to put on after your run is way more important than what you wear while running. That's because you will generate heat while you run, so you aren't going to get too cold during the run itself. But if you're wet from the rain, you will get cold very quickly once you finish. Always have a pair of sweatpants to put on, as well as a dry shirt and a sweatshirt, and maybe even a hat. If you know you'll be getting out of the rain before too long, then those items don't have to be waterproof (or -resistant), just dry. A good way to keep your clothes dry (if you're going to stash them somewhere outdoors while you run) is to put them in a plastic bag. Even a basic plastic bag from a shopping trip will work. A large zip-loc bag is best, but probably not necessary.

During the Run
Like I wrote above, you probably won't get too cold during a run in the rain. The joke I always tell our runners is, "If you start getting cold, run faster!" They laugh nervously, then speed up. Seriously, though, it is good to wear a shirt made of man-made fabric. You can get a fancy "technical fabric" shirt, or even a cheap polyester-based shirt - I've seen these for as little as $5-10. The advantage of these artificial fabric shirts is that they hold less water than cotton, so will keep you a little warmer. The other advantage, primarily for boys, is that they will cause less nipple-chafing than a cotton shirt. This is generally less of an issue for girls because sports bras fit relatively tightly, so minimize the friction between fabric and skin. But nipple-chafing is a painful issue for boys, so try to avoid it with this kind of fabric (although you can also put a little vaseline or even regular lip balm on them to help, too).

The other accessories I will wear in the rain are a hat and gloves. I wear a hat anyway to keep the sun off of my face, but in the rain, it can keep the rain off of it. Rain won't harm your face like the sun will, but it can be annoying. For gloves, I usually just wear a simple pair of lightweight cotton or polyester gloves - it seems I only need a little extra warmth, so even when cotton gloves get wet, my fingers don't get too cold.

What about something warm for your legs? Unless it's very cold - say down around 50° or colder - I find that I don't really need to wear running tights. It seems to be just fine to have dry sweats to put on afterward. But if your legs get cold, some lightweight running tights can do the job. People living in colder climates might need more than one pair to cover more variation in temperatures.

The Next Day
Whenever you get home, you need to start thinking about tomorrow right away. Why? Because it might rain again tomorrow! Unless you have two (or more) of everything, you need to get it all dried out for the next day. The good thing is that all this man-made fabric I've been writing about dries pretty fast (but may not be appropriate for your clothes drier). Unless your stuff got really muddy or sweaty, you can probably just hang up your shirt, gloves, hat, and tights (if you wore them), and they'll be dry by morning. Just be sure to wring out any excess water first.

To dry your shoes, take out the insole, then stuff them with newspaper. Before you go to bed, pull that newspaper out. If the shoes are still wet, stuff some fresh newspaper in them, and they should be dry by morning.

That's it - you're ready to run in the rain! If you have other tips, post them in the comments!

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Research The Course

Last year, I wrote a post about the importance of knowing a course so that you don't miss a turn and go the wrong way. Another important reason for knowing a course is so that you do not encounter unexpected features that freak you out.

This week, the team I coach will be running a course with hills. The last thing you want to do is to start a race, run along smoothly, feeling great and then: OMG! Where did that hill come from?!!

Hills are no different than any other feature that might be on any given course, in that there are certain techniques to run them. If you know you have one or more hills in a course and if you know more or less where they are, you can plan ahead.

So, to continue the example I started above, the course that the frosh-soph and junior varsity divisions will be running this week starts out mostly flat for about a half mile. At that point, there is a fairly steep hill that goes for about a quarter mile. After reaching the top of the climb, the course heads out onto a loop that goes around the tops of the adjacent hills - the loop is about a half mile. During the second half of that loop, there are a few small, rolling hills. Then, you find yourself back at the top of the quarter-mile hill. Down you go, back to the path that you started on, and then you mostly retrace your steps to the finish line.

Since you know that there's a steep-ish hill at the half-mile point, it would be wise to not kill yourself in that first half mile. Then, knowing that there aren't any significant uphills after that point, you can pretty much run as hard as you can on the loop part and then all the way back to the finish.

I was able to race on this course a couple of years ago, and it was fun because, even though it is a difficult course, I knew what the terrain was like, so I was able to plan how to run it. Different runners may want to approach the same course in different ways, and I always encourage runners to make a plan of some sort and try to follow it. After the race, it is always important to assess how you did. Did you execute your plan? What parts worked? What didn't work? Was there a part of your plan that you did particularly well or poorly? Is there some other way you could have run it that would have resulted in a better place?

If you have had experiences where you have either had a plan and it worked or didn't work, or if you didn't research a course and had a bad experience because of that, please share in the comments.

Friday, August 17, 2012

Your First Race!

Your first race is probably coming up in about a month. Yikes! What will it be like? How do I warm up? When is my race?

If you are new to cross-country, you will have many questions like these. Your first race might be just a small gathering against a few other schools, or it could be a huge invitational. Let's review the different kinds of races you will probably run.

Dual or 3-Way Meet
This kind of meet is simply a race against one or two other schools. There won't be many runners, and the timing and scoring is likely to be done by hand. Announcements will be made informally, with one of the coaches simply shouting something like, "OK, varsity girls, your race starts in 10 minutes!" Once everyone gets to the starting line, one of the coaches, who will act as the starter, may give some basic instructions, like an overview of the course or a reminder not to cut in front of another runner. Then he or she will step out of the way, and say something like "Runners to your mark; GO!" Off you'll go. When you finish, the coaches who act as scoring officials will have some way to record your place and time. The old school way is to have the runners stay in a line in the order they finish, and hand each runner a popsicle stick with the number of their finishing place on it. You will take the stick to a scoring table where someone will record your name, school, and place. Once everyone finishes, they will tally up which team won the race.

Center Meet or League Meet
This meet is similar to a dual meet, but involves more schools. With more schools, there will be more runners and they may split into more divisions (e.g., separate freshmen and sophomore races instead of a frosh-soph combined race). The starts may be a little more formal, but will still probably be done simply by a coach from one of the participating schools. The scoring logistics could be the old school method described above, or it could be a little more formal, like using bib numbers with tear-off tags.

These are big, sometimes huge, events with dozens of schools competing. The atmosphere is usually more formal (and exciting!), with announcements made by experienced race announcers over loudspeakers, perhaps more than one race for each division, and more formal scoring and timing (often using electronic timing chips).

Runners often feel differently about these different types of meets. Some runners like the smaller meets because they're more down-to-earth, but some don't like these because they might feel they are obligated to perform better, maybe even win. These latter runners may like the bigger meets better because there might be less pressure to win, given the tougher competition. Some runners don't like the biggest races because they worry about getting trampled.

Warming up should be easy - your coach will tell you what to do, but it will probably be about the same as what you do to warm up before every workout.

How to Race
I will write more about specifics of racing through the season, but your best approach is to listen to your coach. He or she will probably have some specific recommendations for specific races. Often, early season races, especially smaller ones, allow opportunities for runners to try different approaches like starting out faster or slower than you would otherwise.

"When is My Race?"
This is something that, as a coach, I hear more often than anything else. My usual answer is, "I have no idea." That usually isn't completely true, but the reason for it is that meets usually have an order of races, but not specific starting times. Each race starts a few minutes after the previous one ends. Because you never know when any given race will be complete (i.e., when the last runner will finish), you don't know when the next one will start. There can also be technical glitches that slow things down. The best solution is to listen when your coach tells you the order of races, then keep track of where the meet is, how long each race is taking, etc. After a few meets, you'll get the hang of how they go.

Watching the Action
One of the best things about races is that you will have a chance to watch your teammates and other runners race. Besides the fact that cheering for others is fun, you can learn a lot about racing by watching others. Where do various runners position themselves in the pack, and how does that work out for them? When are the most successful runners speeding up on a specific course? When does everyone start their sprint for the finish?

Let the season begin!!

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Don't Step on the Banana Slugs!

Many high school cross-country programs offer a "running camp" during the summer. Last month, I helped take 28 student-athletes to a camp. It was a fantastic experience for everyone!

There were several purposes of the camp. The obvious one was to be able to get some focused training time, away from whatever obligations everyone has at home. Another major purpose was team bonding, which is more than just getting to know each other better. Other purposes included learning about our upcoming season and mental training techniques such as visualization. The camp was open to anyone, whether they were on the team or not.

We left town on a Sunday morning for the 1½-hour drive to the camp. The camp was located in a spectacularly beautiful part of the San Francisco Bay Area between Palo Alto and the Pacific Ocean. There was no cell phone service in the area of the camp. No one seemed to mind.

Camp "Wildlife"
What did we do at the camp? Our typical schedule was to wake up at 6 AM and go running at 6:30. What?! 6 AM?! Yes, that's pretty early for teenagers to get up during the summer, but you know what? There wasn't a single time in the five days we were there when we had to drag someone out of bed who had overslept. Everyone was very motivated to get up and run. Why? The early morning runs were some of the best times of the camp. The forest was just waking up, the fog was collecting in the redwood trees and dripping down onto the ground, and - best of all - the early morning was the best time of the day to find banana slugs!

After breakfast, there was some free time, and then we had a meeting at 10. We did several different things at these meetings. For one of them, I walked everyone through a simple visualization exercise. I wrote about visualization in another post last season, and this was a chance for everyone to try it in real time.

Once the meeting was over, there was some more free time before lunch. After lunch, everyone tried to digest their food quickly because the main workout of the day was at 2:30. At this workout, the most advanced runners would run all the way to the end of the trail that we ran on - the round-trip distance was ten miles! The less advanced runners started the week running for 40 minutes, and then worked their way up to 60 minutes by the end of the camp.

After the tough workout of the day, there was more free time, which was used to swim in the camp's beautiful pool a few times. Other runners enjoyed playing volleyball on the sand court or ping pong or making friendship bracelets or playing the guitar and singing. After dinner, we had another meeting, where we did things like going over what our competition was going to be like in the upcoming season. We also had some "circle time" at a couple of the meetings, where everyone shared their experiences of a good or bad race or something funny that happened to them in a race. During one of the evening meetings, each person got up in front of everyone and announced what their goals are for the upcoming season. Each person also had the option of saying how they feel about running, about being on the team, etc., which several people did.

Finally, the day ended with some kind of social activity like group games or a campfire with s'mores. One night, there was a talent show, which was very impressive and, of course, fun. It was lights out at 11 PM (although it's rumored that some of the runners stayed up talking a little later than that).

That's a lot of miles!!
At the end of the camp, some of the runners made a chart on one of the white boards in the meeting room that tallied up all of the miles everyone ran. Many of the runners were amazed at both their own accomplishments and those of their teammates. Everyone left the camp with a huge confidence boost because of all of their hard work, not to mention having made new friends or strengthening existing friendships with their teammates. Most importantly, the camp served as one more experience that made everyone want to continue running.

Thursday, July 26, 2012


So here we are in about the middle of the summer. What are high school cross-country runners doing?


That's right, you don't want to show up on the first day of school having taken the summer off (unless you were injured, of course). Instead, you want to have spent your summer running.

But what kind of running? How far should I go? How fast should I run? Who will coach me?

These are easy questions to answer. First of all, you should mostly be doing easy running. The hard running comes during the season when you're training your body to race. But in order to be able to do the hard running, you have to be "in shape," which means that you have an endurance base. This means that just running miles is all you really have to do in the summer. Well, that, plus other strength work like pushups, abs, etc. - all of those things will get you ready for the Fall.

Second, you should have taken some time off after your track season, like a couple of weeks. Or maybe you are totally new to the sport. In either case, you should view the distances you might run during the summer as a long process of building endurance. This means to start with shorter distances and then increase. How do you know how far you can run? Just try a few miles at first. If that feels easy, add a mile or so, then another, and so on. For example, on the team I coach, some runners started at 3 miles, while the more advanced runners started the summer running 6 or 8 miles in the first workouts. Now, halfway through the summer, even the shortest distances are around 6 miles.

How fast? Don't even think about speed yet. Just enjoy being out running, preferably with your friends on the team. Sometimes runners want to race each other during these workouts (because it's fun) and end up running long runs really fast. I think that's a bad idea because you increase your risk of injury if you try to run fast before your body is ready to do that.

Coach? Who needs a coach? Actually, as coaches, we are not allowed to hold workouts or coach anyone until a specific date a week or two before school starts. All we do is provide a place and time for student-athletes to run - in fact, anyone can run with us, and we often have parents or students from other schools join us. We're really just a bunch of people who like running. We can suggest how many minutes or miles to run, but, at least for our team, the captains actually direct the workouts. We pretty much just bring the first aid kit in case anyone trips and falls and maybe some water. This is a good setup because summer running is a chance for everyone to just get out and enjoy running. The benefits of summer running are huge, but the motivation comes from the student-athletes anyway: everyone who wants to improve knows they should be running in the summer.

Another way we offer runners an opportunity to stay in shape over the summer is to hold a running camp. I will be writing a separate blog post to tell you all about what our running camp was like. Here's a preview: It was awesome!!

Until next time, keep on running!

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Your Worst Enemy - Your Own Mind

That's right, your mind (brain) is your enemy. It is always trying to get you to slow down, mostly when you don't have to.

I was at an invitational track meet last weekend at which two of our runners were running. Both of them suffered from their worst enemy: their own minds.

On the first day, our runner was in the 3000 meter race. The first four laps went pretty well - he was patient and ran that first 1600 meters a little faster than when he ran his best time a few weeks ago in the 3200 meters. Then, he hooked up with what looked like a great situation - three or four other runners who were running about his pace. He could hide in the pack to stay out of the slight breeze, and let them do all the work. The only problem was that they slowed down. Our runner's brain most likely sent signals out that told him he was doing all the right things. The only problem, I believe, is that that brain ignored the sensation that he was slowing down, a sensation that this individual would ordinarily have noticed in an instant. So his brain said "You're doing great! Keep doing THIS!" when it should have been saying "Dude! You're slowing down! Pick it up!"

Our other runner ran the next day in the mile. In his case, he started off at the pace he hoped he could run for the first two laps. In the third lap, he tired a bit (as he should have!), and several runners passed him. As an experienced and talented runner, he should not let this kind of thing bother him. I don't believe it did, at least not consciously. But I think his brain said, "Nice try, kid, but you're just not as fast as those other guys." The final lap was interesting because those guys who passed him were about 5 meters ahead of him, but never increased that lead. To his brain, it appeared that they were out of reach, but standing where I was, it was a gap he definitely could have closed. IF his brain would have let him. But instead, his brain (subconsciously, I believe) told him the race was over. His final lap split was the same as his third lap, even though he had the ability to sprint in with a time 3 or 4 seconds faster, which would have put him ahead of at least a couple of those other guys.

Why does this happen and what can you do about it?

I think it happens as a defense mechanism. Your brain is in charge of your life support systems, and any time your heart rate and respiration rate and lactic acid production rate start heading upward, it's your brain's job to figure out how to reverse those trends. Your brain starts to tell you that you must slow down. It tries to trick you by telling you you can't do what you want to do. Even if it is doing this subconsciously, it is really, really good at it.

What you can do about it is, first and foremost, train appropriately for the goal you have. If your goal is to run a mile in under 5:00, train for that. But the key to overcoming your brain's tricks in the actual race is to trust that training. If you're trying to run under 5:00, but you've only trained enough to run under 5:15, then this will not help. If you have done the training, the next trick is to acknowledge that your brain WILL try to trick you. When you get to that third lap, start thinking, "I know my brain wants me to slow down, but I know - because of the training I've done - that I don't have to. I can actually keep this pace up, even speed up, because I know what I actually can do. My brain is just trying to trick me."

So next time you're in a race, remember that, no matter how well-intentioned it might be, your mind is your enemy. Use that knowledge to run the race you want to run.

Thursday, March 29, 2012

If You Can Do This, You Can Do Anything!

Earlier this week, the San Francisco Bay Area finally got a rainstorm with some strength to it (we are currently in a near-drought condition, running at about half of our normal rainfall for the rainy season).

Of course, we had a track workout scheduled.

The wind was gusting up to around 20 mph, and the rain was steady. The temperature dropped almost 10 degrees from the time we showed up at the track to the time the workout ended.

When you're running along a path or road on a stormy day just doing a regular run, it's not too bad. You're constantly moving, so you can adjust your clothing and pace to be reasonably comfortable. On the track, it's run, then stop, then run, then stop. The runs always include portions that are against the wind, which means - even if you wear a hat, like I do - you get rain in your face. You get cold in between the run segments. Ugh. It is really not fun.

What's worse is that it's really, really hard - no, darn near impossible - to get any sense of pace because of running against the wind, then with it, then against it, and so on. So the workout can be very frustrating, in addition to very miserable.

But here's the bonus: a lot of your competition won't do it. They'll change their workout to something easier or even skip it entirely. If you go ahead and do it, you should know that it will put you one step ahead of the competition in terms of training. Better yet, the mental toughness you gain by doing that workout under those conditions will give you a huge leg-up. You will be in races where you are feeling very fatigued, and you'll know that it will require a lot of toughness to continue running well all the way to the finish. If you have done this kind of workout under extreme conditions like what our runners did this week, you will know (not just hope) that you have that toughness to get the job done.

Thursday, January 26, 2012

It's January. What do I do now?

So, here we are nearing the end of January already. What is going on for cross-country runners right now? Chances are, you are getting ready to start your track seasons. Are you running track? Should you? What event(s) should you run? How is track different from cross-country?

Lots of questions, of course. Here are my answers to these questions. If you think of other questions (or other answers!), add them in the comments, and I'll give you my two cents.

What are cross-country runners doing right now?
As I noted above, most are probably getting ready for track season. Track is a natural companion to cross-country because, well, it involves running. Different kinds of running, but running nonetheless. Since "track season" doesn't really start for at least a couple more weeks, most athletes are in a pre-season regimen of some kind. For our team, we are just running miles, with an occasional easy-ish tempo run or a few 50-meter strides thrown in. We also went to an "all-comers" meet just for fun (I even ran in it!).

Should you run track?
 Absolutely! Why? For a couple of reasons. First of all, you should continue running throughout the year. There are times when you should take a break from running, but you don't need to make that break more than a couple of weeks. You are developing as an athlete, and running track will allow you to continue to develop without going backwards in that development. Second, track will give you some experience with different kinds of running that will keep you interested in the sport, as well as develop your ability to run fast. Finally, it's fun! I actually developed my love for running from running track. Even though I was one of the slowest runners in the entire county, running in a track meet made me feel like I was competing in the Olympics. There was something about the formality of the starts of the various races that just seemed really cool to me. I also found that I loved the competition itself, as well as the systematic-ness of dividing up races into easily dividable pieces, like laps or half-laps (did that make sense?).

What event(s) should you run?
Most cross-country runners will run the 1500/1600 meters and/or the 3000/3200 meters, and some will also do the 800. I encourage runners to try other events, too, just to see if they like them. The 400 is a good one to try because it can give you some perspective on your own pacing for the longer races. Depending on how big the meets are and what the order of events is, you should try to run in two events during each meet, maybe even three. This introduces you to a new skill, which involves cooling down from one event, then warming up for another one, which you did not have to do during cross-country season. It's a challenge to figure out how to make that work.

How is track different than cross-country?
First and foremost, the distances are shorter, which means that you will be running faster. In the case of the 800, especially, it will be a lot faster. This creates a new challenge because the faster you are running, the more you might be risking injury, especially if you have not trained enough.

Another major difference is that every course is the same, pretty much. There are some differences in surface (one track may be softer or harder than another) and, of course, weather, but 1600m on one track is the exact same distance as on another track and - some people will love this - there are no hills!

Training is different for track, too, primarily because of the shorter and homogeneous races. There is a lot of precise pacing involved, which you will learn during practices.

Like I noted above, if you have other questions about track, post them in the comments, and I will answer them!